Oral History

Narrator: Federico Ramos
Interviewer: Donna Sinclair
Date: November 18, 1999
Place: Hermiston, OR

Federico Ramos was born in Jalisco, Mexico. He has been living in the Hermiston area for about 7 years Ė arrived in 1992. Federico came to the area because his father was living there, leaving his mother and sister behind in Mexico. He originally went to California and could have stayed, but he didnít like the big city. . . was only in California for a couple of weeks. In the following interview Federico describes his employment as an agricultural farmworker and discusses the opportunities he sees for himself in the United States.

[Interview begins, Side A, Tape 1 of 1]

DS: What do you remember hearing about the United States before coming to this area?

FR: I heard life is different, thereís a lot of opportunities for a better life. And I can see it is true, but we have to watch ourselves too. Because you spend your money, itíll be exactly like in Mexico. . . I have to save for like, during the winter, for November and December, we donít have very much work on the farms. So I was watching that for myself. Otherwise, I would be in problems trying to get a job during that time. And sometimes it is not the winter, but in some parts after pruning, the farms they donít have jobs. They let off almost everybody. They have just the bosses, the people who have worked with the tractors. . . putting the chemicals. So we have to wait for a couple weeks or three weeks and then we can move back. And we do the thinning, thinning the apples. And then we work for about a month, and then we start harvesting the cherries, and then the apricots, almost at the same time. They split the cherry and apple crews. Then after that we go back to thinning apples for a couple weeks, and then we donít have very much work for another three weeks, until the harvest. And after the harvest everything slows down. But some places like Simplot, they have a lot of work. . .

The first year when I was doing the harvest, we finished in one farm the first week of October. It was really cold mornings. Sometimes the apple was covered with ice in the mornings. . . I did that for three seasons. I did that in 1992, 1994, 1995. Thatís all when I did the harvest. I had different jobs. I worked in 1996 for Potlatch, through an agency named KRP Management down in Boardman. I work for two and a half years. After that they laid me off and I went back to do the pruning, which was this year. I did the pruning and now Iím working in Walmart Distribution Center Ė just weekends. . . during the night. . .

[whether he goes back to work on the farms depends on whether he gets a full-time job with Walmart. The contract he is working under ends in February Ė Shady Brook Lambert. They wonít get the contract any longer. Walmart hires people through agencies to sort the pallets and "doing the cardboard bales." Itís hard to get a job with Walmart. If you work for an agency, you have to quit and wait six months before you can be hired directly by Walmart]

I donít know what will happen. Maybe I will go back to the farms, for some time. Depends. I would like to work here, in the city, Hermiston. Try to find a place where I can work. I speak English and Spanish fluently, both of them. . .

[talks about the difficulty of translation between languages. He was 18 when he came to the U.S. went to school in Mexico for 9 years. Six years elementary school and three years secondary school. Was at the top of his class. Took English classes in Mexico, but his teacher didnít speak very well. . . wants to learn a third language. Is taking karate and would like to learn French.]

. . . even from Spain, they speak a lot different from Mexico, and from Mexico to Honduras, Guatemala, they have little things that mean something different. Or meaning the same, we are saying different in Mexico.

DS: Did anyone come with you when you came to the U.S.?

FR: [A few guys came with him. One works across the river on a farm, working in cherries and apples. His father was here Ė had already been here for nine years]

DS: Did you have other opportunities in Mexico, or did you come because you wanted to see what it was like?

FR: I wanted to see what it was like. My dad and my mom encouraged me to go to school, but Iím not very good reading big topics. So, I didnít want to go any farther after that even though I was doing good. So I came here. [his mother stayed in Mexico. She spent six months last year in the U.S. and then went back to Mexico]

DS: What was your first impression of Hermiston?

FR: It was a small town. I can see it is growing really fast. I remember in 1992, there wasnít much traffic around the streets. . . and right now you drive around in town, any time of day, and itís full. Especially on Highway 395 which goes across the town, itís full sometimes. . . [DS asks what he does for fun. Bicycle riding, and now karate]

DS: What is the work like on the farms in different seasons of the year?

FR: It is hard. Here in this area I work at too many jobs. I plant onions. I weed around the onions. I work also pulling out the weeds around the wheat. . . I was doing that for a couple weeks. There wasnít too much work on that.

DS: And thatís all done by hand?

FR: Yeah, thatís all done by hand. Most of the jobs are done by hand. Right now they are topping onions with tractors. Before it used to be with hands. I did that for a couple weeks. Itís not a very good job. Itís hard on your back, even though I was doing good when I did it. I remember one day my cousin, he stand up and touching his back, his lower back, and going like [makes a movement like grabbing his back] crunching. . . I could see it on his face, he was hurt and I was doing good. Can stand straight up, no pain at all.

DS: How many hours a day did you work?

FR: Well it was like, depends how much you do. Sometimes you start early in the morning when the sun is coming up, until twelve you can come home. It is up to the worker because you. You can do a lot to get a lot, if you donít do a lot, you donít get very much.

DS: So, are you paid by the hour or by the job?

FR: The job.

DS: Approximately how much would you make for say, if you made "a lot"?

FR: A lot in a day I would say is a hundred dollars, or over a hundred dollars. I did it, but it was in the apples. I was harvesting probably around ten bins for a day. They were paying ten dollars for a bin. That was in 1994, and the highest amount of bins I reached was fourteen; from six in the morning to about fifteen minutes before 4 p.m. That was a very good day for me.

DS: What would a bad day be like?

FR: For me, a bad day would be like seven bins per day, in like ten hours or from six to four. That would be a bad day because if Iím working for how much Iím doing, I would expect like, a hundred dollars because I would work as fast as I can. Then I could save some money for during the time we are having to wait for the next part of the season job. [GOOD VOICE SECTION]

DS: So what would a bad day in weeding onions, or weeding be like?

FR: Well, on weeding onions, they were paying by the hour.

DS: How much were they paying?

FR: In 1993 I worked doing that, they were paying $4.75 per hour, here close to Hermiston, there are the [Macamie? Ė sp?] Brothers Farms. They have potatoes, they have wheat and onions, thatís all I seen around that farm. . . After that I moved thinning apples for about a couple weeks, and they lay me off and I went to another job. They were paying me $4.25. That was in Washington in 1993. I was weeding around the carrots. I did for a couple weeks.

DS: And you said now theyíre doing the weeding with machines?

FR: No, just the topping onions. Yeah, they cut the top, and harvest with a tractor, like a conveyer, like the ones they use on potatoes. They are very much similar. But they gather the onions in a row, and then they come with a tractor, with a conveyer, a little conveyer and pick it out and then put it in the truck.. . . [neither potatoes nor potatoes are harvested by hand. People are hired to weed onions, carrots, or potatoes. People work in different areas].

DS: When youíre doing that kind of work, who works in the field with you? Were there large groups of people or young men, women, children? Who was doing that kind of work?

FR: Hmm, just adult people.

DS: Mostly men, or women too?

FR: Oh, mostly men, but also women work on topping onions. . . some farmers are doing because itís better quality doing by hand than by machine. . . because sometimes the machines, there is a bump in the land, they cut the onion off. Or they have a very long stem of the onion, so by hand is better. But now, now for very much time they are doing that. . . but on the onions quite a few women work.

And pruning the apple trees, I havenít seen very much, since this year I saw a crew, they were working Ė only women Ė but they were pruning the small trees. And I heard they were paying by the row. By row counts like $20. . . if they do three, $60 per day.

DS: How many trees are in a row?

FR: Depends. They are. . . they have 64, but sometimes a tree is missing or a couple trees are missing in a row, so you have 60, 63. . .

. . . yeah, I was using big pruning loppers. It is hard on my upper arm right here. It hurts. Really bad.

DS: How much did you get paid for that?

FR: It was .65 per tree. I wasnít doing very well this year on that. Iím not very good. . . and I work for about three weeks or four, Iím not sure. And I quit the job because I got a different job here in Irrigon, with Empire. Thatís a farm. They were paying a dollar per tree. I did good because, a couple days I was doing like, a hundred, eighty, ninety trees per day. That was a good day for me. But sometimes we were doing, in a bad day Ė 45. But if we add all the numbers, then divide it by the days we work, it was a good.

DS: What was your average?

FR: Mmm, seventy.

DS: And thatís for working from six in the morning until four in the afternoon?

FR: No, it was from 7, 7:30, around 5:00 p.m. It was long hours.

DS: Did your arms get tired by the end of the day?

FR: Yeah, actually, by the end of the season this year, I was so sore on my wrist, I couldnít do any push-ups. I was doing karate too at that time, and I couldnít do any push-ups for about two weeks. Because I was working also on weekends. I was working sometimes on Saturday evenings, from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00, and then coming back on Sunday, from around 7, 7:30 until 1 or 2 p.m. There was a little farm in Boardman. I donít remember the name, but that guy whose working on West Empire Office. He is associated with another guy on that little farm. He was gathering a couple guys and a crew to get that part of the job finished. We were pruning gala apple trees. It is different because we have the wires in the post, in the row. We have to prune one side, then crawl under the wires. Then prune the other side, then come back to the other side, pick the ladder and do the tops. . .

DS: [the wires] slow you down a little, donít they?

FR: Not really because the branches were softer than red apple trees. Red apple trees have hard branch, but gala apple trees is soft. You can cut it with a small effort. . . [the red delicious] are the hardest. . . I prune also Roma trees. They are not very hard, but the hardest part is they have a lot of little branches, so we have to watch the fruit during the pruning. . . If we have a lot, it wonít be a good season because we are going to have too many apples, and during the thinning we have to take too many off. So we need to watch that too. Sometimes we take off a branch because we need a space to get in for the harvest, because we need to let the sun in. If you have a tree with too many apples in the center at the bottom, they wonít be mature. They wonít be good because they wonít have very much sun. They will be green and the ones on the outside will be ready for harvest. And sorting the apples is not a very good thing to do. I did it once. It was tough. . . you need to sort the good apples from the ones that are green. I did it once, it was in 1995. I donít remember the name of the farmer. It was in Plymouth. They were paying $18 per bin. I was doing like three, and I was so tired sometimes of looking at the apples Ė "which one is a good one?" They will look good for me, all of them. And here come these people checking the apples.
"Oh, they are too green. We need to get a better job."

[groans] I was going like this, "Oh, no. Not again."

DS: . . . What would be your favorite job, your favorite crop?

FR: Harvesting the apples. I did most of the jobs for that.

DS: And what would be your least favorite?

FR: Topping onions. . . because you donít get very much in a day. I did it once, but we were working like five hours, but we went home. We didnít want to exhaust ourselves. I was waiting for the harvest of the apple at that time. I would rather save my energy for the apples.

DS: So you wouldnít make very much money topping onions?

FR: No.

[End Side A, Begin Side B]

[DS asks about transportation. They must provide their own. Are there any benefits? They are able to take fruit home. When working in the apples and the onions, he was able to take apples and onions home and give them to friends. Housing is not provided in this area]

FR: One day I went to work in Kimberly, Oregon. Thatís close to John Day. They provide cabins, but it is too far for the food. Some people were working there. I just did it for a couple weeks. They fire us, because when they. I wasnít getting much sleep at the time. We were sorting the apples. So we stop, three guys, working, and they sent us home. We donít want you to stay here, not one night. You are going home.

"No problem," we said. We got everything, we put everything ready, we went to the closest town. We bought film for our camera to take some pictures on our way back, and we bought something to drink. . . we were just ready to come back here.

DS: Why? Why were you ready to come back here?

FR: Well, because. At that time I didnít worry very much for that.

DS: So, it was far away from everything.

FR: Yeah, it was about two and a half hours from here. And.

DS: You said the cabins were, that they had cabins, but they werenít near a store or anything.

FR: No, and there was not a food store there. There was a little store, but they sell like probably wine or beer. I didnít walk in.

DS: Did they provide food?

FR: No. We need to buy the food.

DS: Before you went to stay there?

FR: Yeah, in this area, thatís the only place I heard that provided houses or something to live.

DS: How many people would stay in a cabin?

FR: Four. Three. . .

DS: Have you seen any kind of organizing for strikes or anything like that?

FR: No. . . but I had tried sometimes to encourage people to strike because they are not paying enough sometimes. And they are paying just what you did. If you worked eight hours and you did less, they donít pay you by the hour. They say you are not working and just talking, and blah-blah-blah. But when I see I am not getting even the minimum, I donít feel enthusiastic to keep on working. Iíd rather work a little, and then eat, rest. I donít want to burn out myself for a few bucks. I donít want to do that. It is hard on your body. So when it is not very good job, Iím kind of working a little and then stop for a while and then work a little and then work a little and then stop for a while.

DS: So, what do you consider not very. You said sometimes they arenít paying very well, so you encourage other people to - what do you encourage them to do? What kinds of strategies do you use?

FR: To talk with the boss or the guy in charge, to speak up for us. We are not doing very much, trying to do that, but they say, "No! If we do it, weíre gonna get fired." . . . [people are worried they will lose their jobs. If they keep working, they will at least make a little money. I canít stand that.]

. . . I know it is hard. I donít have a family. Iím single. But, some people have a family, wives, two or three kids, it is tough if you are only making like $200 per week. It is tough to keep on going. In a month, sometimes you donít have that job forever. You have to work, and then change to a different work, save some money for the time you are going to be off of work.

DS: People have to wait to be called back to work?

FR: Yeah, sometimes they need to keep checking when they are going to start the pruning or the thinning apples, the harvest for the cherries, the harvest for the apple, the harvest for the potato, harvest for carrots. Or when they are going to package the potatoes or whatever they have Ė onions. Here are places that are putting onions in sacks. Ten pounds, twenty-five pounds. They make the pile on the pallet. They send them to different places.

. . . Making $225 - $250 on forty hours I would consider fair pay. But, at the farm sometimes we work more than forty hours. We donít get paid over time. The only places are here around in the plants. They pay over time. But they are trying not to give people over time. They are trying to save some money for the company or for whatever reason they are doing it.

DS: At Walmart, you said that you are contracted through another agency and that itís hard to get a regular full-time job. So is that what youíre looking for? Are you looking for a regular job?

FR: Yeah, Iím trying to get a full-time job. Right now we are working full-time because we are putting like five hours over time per week. We are working eleven and a a half hours Friday, Saturday and Sunday, from 6 to 6, three days. Then, at 4:30 p.m. Monday, to 3:00 a.m. Tuesday, the morning, so thatís ten hours, plus the other hours. Itís about, a little bit over forty hours.

DS: So, are you going to school?

FR: Yeah, Iím going to school, but just to improve reading, writing, math, and the understanding of the English language. . . [thought about going to college, but it would be hard. Might do it later. Is now taking two classes. Used to go to church, but quit about two years ago Ė the Catholic Church in Hermiston. Has friends "on both sides, but mostly they are Mexicans."]

DS: Have you experienced any prejudice or discrimination since youíve been here?

FR: No. Not at all. My color is white, so they donít expect me to be from there sometimes. Three or two occasions. One day I was at Safeway. I was walking into the store and a guy came to me and he was asking, "Do you speak Spanish?"

"Yes." And he was trying to sell me some jewelry, some gold necklace or bracelet, something.

And I told him, "Uh-oh. I donít want to wear anything like that. Some people can get my finger if I am wearing a ring. My hand, if I am wearing a good watch. And my neck if I am wearing a necklace. I donít want to mess with that." . . .

[DS tells a story about being in Hood River where a customer was angry because the woman behind the counter couldnít speak English very well Ė asks if heís seen anything like that]

FR: I havenít seen anything like that, but if I were at that time when somebody is doing that, I would step in for that person. I would do that. I remember one time I went to this auto part [place]. . . At that time I didnít speak very much English, and I was trying to explain what I needed, and the guy kept on listening a couple of three times. He said, "No, I donít understand you. Next time, bring somebody who will translate for you." He wasnít being rude with me. He was trying to understand me a couple or three times. I felt it was a good service for me. . .

DS: [Asks about health care generally] If youíre out pruning trees and you hurt your back, what happens?

FR: Yeah, the farmer will send you to the doctor. They will pay, but. My uncle broke his arm. He went to the doctor at a hospital here. They were telling him, they put [a cast] on his arm. But he left [for Mexico] before the doctor said it is okay to go, we are going to take off that. He left. He went to Mexico. He came back and all the papers from the hospital were still coming. We gave the papers to him. We tell him, "Bring it to the farm. They will pay." [He was able to make the farm pay for the injury, but because he went to Mexico without the doctorís permission, he was unable to collect disability benefits]

DS: How did he hurt his arm?

FR: I think he was harvesting the apples, and probably he slip on the ladder or the grass. I didnít know how it happen, but he fell. He broke his arm.

DS: Did you see a lot of people get hurt when they are working in the fields?

FR: No, I havenít seen it.

DS: So, do you consider it dangerous?

FR: Yeah, I consider it dangerous because it could happen. There are possibilities. Sometimes you are in the ladder harvesting the cherries. They are tall ladders. You can move to the side so far, you will go down. A couple times I catch myself with a branch, not to let my body fall. . . and sometimes the ladder is going down on one side, but if you catch a branch on the other side you can keep it straight by pulling yourself with that hand. You can go back quickly to the ground and put the ladder straight and you will be fine. You need to keep an eye on that all the time.

DS: What about chemicals? Do you see chemicals being used?

FR: Yeah. Chemicals, herbicides.

DS: Are there any kind of protective measures that you have to follow?

FR: Yeah, you have to follow certain protections. On the apple they put some chemicals for the flower, and when the fruit is so little, they put some chemical to make some fruit fall. Because they donít want too much apple or too much apricots on the tree. They have too much, they need to take off the unneeded fruit to have a big fruit and better quality.

DS: So are you exposed to those at all?

FR: They put a time. When they do that, they take out the crew for a couple days, so that block or that field stays. Nobody gets in. But sometimes the dust makes you sneeze a lot, everyday. Because of the, I believe the residues of the chemicals. They are still there. . . I feel like itís the chemicals because they are put in every year, every year, every year.

DS: How do you feel about being exposed to that year after year?

FR: Well, I feel good right now, but if some farmer offer me to work doing that, I would reject that offer. I reject it this year. When I was working pruning at Western Empire, that guy came to me and said, "Would you like to work here for me?"

And I ask him, "Well, what would be my duties?"

He said, "Pruning," he said, "driving the tractors, putting chemicals."

When he said putting chemicals, I answer. "I wouldnít mess with that. I donít want to do that." . . . I would rather be away from the chemicals. I donít want to expose myself that much. Because you are doing it, itís different because you expose yourself when the strongest power of the chemical is there. After two days it is not very strong like that.

DS: Do the growers always follow that time limit?

FR: . . . as far as I know they are following everything.

[DS asks if he has heard about PCUN Ė the agricultural workers labor organization. He hasnít]

DS: Iím curious to know what you consider your greatest opportunity here in the United States?

FR: My greatest opportunity, I would consider the first time when I walked into BMCC (Blue Mountain Community College) to learn English. The first day I was lost. I didnít understand a lot. I understood just a little words. But, I keep on going and after a while it became a lot easier. I was moving up to a higher level, improving myself. In 1995, I started the classes for grammar, writing. The first class, I remember, I walked in. I didnít understand anything because they read a big paragraph. And at first I thought, should I go home and donít suffer this. Should I stay and maybe learn a little bit.

I stayed. For a couple classes it was like that. Now Iím doing better. I can understand better on that part. I would consider that a big opportunity for me. I did it myself. I felt so good about it. . . [feels like it will help him gain employment because he can read English]

DS: What thing might stop you from achieving your dreams?

FR: I donít think anything would stop me from achieving my dreams. Right now I am not going to the ESL classes in the evening because I am doing karate, and I want to do it good! So Iím attending three days. Whenever I have a chance I will attend four days. I give myself time for what I want to do. . .

[Interview ends]

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